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When I do squats, I place my feet slightly wider than shoulder width, pointed outwards at about 30 degrees. I still have trouble keeping my balance going all the way down without bending forward heavily. My ankles are not particularly flexible, I have tight achilles tendons and hamstrings, and I think that I am not able to bend my lower legs far enough to keep my weight centered over my feet. I basically fall over backwards and my "shin muscle" gives out unless I come up on my toes.

I've tried using small weights under my heels with some success, but I wonder if I should focus on increasing my achilles tendon flexibility or is this just an issue of weakness in my lower legs?

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Where are you looking when you squat? Many people think that they should be looking at the ground when doing a squat in order to avoid injury. This is incorrect, you should be looking straight ahead. If you were trying to balance a broom vertically on your fingertip, you wouldn't look at your fingertip, you'd look at the top of the broom. Same concept here. –  Sparafusile May 3 '11 at 13:51
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Perhaps you should back down the weight while you get your form under control. Find some good stretches that will help--you can even do those on your off days. Lunge stretches help me out, working on both hip-flexors and calf/ankle flexibility. You may also want to stretch the hamstrings while you are at it. Backing down the weight will let your weaker muscles catch up to the stronger ones--something that was made painfully aware to me when I switched from machines to free weight squats. Even backing down 90 lbs from the machines, I couldn't do a proper squat free weight. –  Berin Loritsch May 3 '11 at 14:04
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5 Answers

Definitely sounds like a flexibility issue. You need to work on getting more mobility in your ankles and hips. Goblet squats are a good exercise that tends to automatically enforce good form in the squat. If you don't keep an upright position you fall over. I would recommend combining goblet squats with a dumbbell or kettlebell with ankle and hip mobility exercises.

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Having done squats now for a while, there are a few things that can throw off your balance in no order of precedence:

  • Lack of flexibility
  • Looking up or down
  • Bad position in the hole (knees to far forward)

The number one mistake that I and many other people new to squats make is to look up. We're either looking in the mirror to evaluate our form or we are looking at our waist directly. Either way the head is not in an anatomically neutral position. It's amazing how a small adjustment like that can fix balance problems or back position problems.

To deal with flexibility, there are a few stretches that help out, and I recommend doing them before you start your session:

  • Lunge stretches. Improves hip-flexor mobility and calf/ankle mobility. Both feet should be flat on the floor and you should keep your body vertical as you push your hip forward.
  • Body weight squats. Hold your position at the bottom and push your knees out with your elbows. The crease of your hips should be below the top of your patella, and your balance should be in the middle of your foot. Hold it for about 10 seconds and do it at least twice. Memorize the way your body feels in this position, it's what you are trying to do when you have the weight on your back.

To deal with balance, there are a couple of variations with the squats to help you learn your body position:

  • Blocks in front of your knees. The blocks should be tall enough so that your knee can touch it, and placed about 1-2 inches in front of your toes. When you squat touch the block with your knees but don't knock it over.
  • Block under your butt. The block should be low enough so that the crease of your hips is below your patella, and positioned so that when your knees are at the right position you will touch the block with your butt, but not sit on it.

These variations help you to learn proper body position and get a better kinesthetic sense of yourself during the exercise. Remember with squats you are lowering your hips, not your back. If your hips aren't getting low enough it will throw off your balance as well (pushing your balance on your toes). The bar should always be over mid foot, as should your weight.

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Matt, you can do the same exercise (squats) while holding onto something in front of you e.g. a bar or chair for support until you build up the strength in your legs.

This will allow you greater control while doing the squat.

Also don't go so far down that you risk injury. If you can't make it all the way you are better of only going part of the way down until you build up the necessary strength.

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I would suggest that you have someone critique your squat form first. Find a friend or maybe a trainer at the gym to see if you have proper form. Assuming your form is correct, then we'll need to feed you some exercises that should strengthen your body to support the squat exercises.

Trouble doing squats, try these exercises:

  • Reverse Lunges
  • Split Squats
  • Calf Raise
  • Calf Press
  • Bosu squats - Put the rounded part of the bosu facing the ground and stand with both feet on the flat part. Do 3 sets of about 8-10 squats on the bosu, with an emphasis on form. When your balance gets better, you can hold a plate or dumbbell while you do your squats.
  • Once you get the hang of the bosu, you can get creative and try different exercises like holding your balance on one leg or one-legged squats on bosu.

I found a couple of resources from exrx.net that may be of use as well.

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Sounds like you're struggling with posture.

You shouldn't need to use your achilles tendon, AT ALL, when doing squats. If they are activated, then you're using your foot and that is wrong.

Correct your squat by increasing the arch on your back and sticking out your ass more.

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My Achilles is not activated, it's so tight my ankles won't bend more. I'm already falling over backwards, wouldn't sticking my ass out more make the problem worse? –  Matt Connolly Jul 15 '13 at 11:21
    
(1) If your achilles are tight, then you're putting pressure on your foot (like when you walk), so you are activating your achilles. (2) Sticking out your ass is meant to help with balance; if it's making your balance worse, sounds like your posture is wrong. (3) Best recommendation: Get a pro (like a personal trainer) to critique your squat! –  daCoda Jul 15 '13 at 22:29
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